Off the grid

Hard to resist … Edna Staebler’s butter-fried chicken in milk gravy. Photo: David ReistIn that moment when you pull the plant from the rich earth, the edible root attached, you get the heady realisation. Yeah, I can do this! I can live off the land and off the grid.

It’s the dream of every gardener, as well as people with a penchant for conspiracy theories and alien-invasion novels. I am both.

If the world descended into turmoil and everyone had to fight for survival, could we do it? Could we rise like a Jack Reacher hero? A proper Jack Reacher, someone over five foot five who can protect our borders from the hordes of city dwellers who lack the survival set to live off the land.

I know these are heady thoughts to be having standing sockless in Blunnies and a dressing gown on a frosty morning with a dirt-clad horseradish bulb at my side as I look to the east for signs of thermonuclear activity, or for my neighbour, who went out large on alpacas and is probably ruing that day.

If I do a stocktake of what I could live on, say this happened today (you never know, New Zealand has been awfully quiet and I’ve noticed more and more Kiwis in my workplace – just saying), we have: one 200-kilogram pig, which would get a lot of attention as she is a known resident and full of acorns, top of the new, post-apocalyptic food pyramid (let’s see how quickly the vegan turn paleo now that only the strong shall survive); six chickens for eggs and to eat when they get older (mental note: get a rooster); three geese – would need to set a trap as they are ever suspicious, but they would be pretty special for dinner, plus warm bedding; 20 young Texas longhorns, not mine but possession is way past nine-tenths of the law now, a whole lot of goodness there; one deer, and I would eventually get over the idea of sanctuary and see her for what she is, pure flavour.

All this protein would last at least a year, and on top of that I’d have wine from the 2.5 hectares of grapes, so I get to be merry 24/7, and with the alcohol have a source of biofuel, plus heaps of acorns – the pig would no longer need them – so I’d work out how to make flour and more biofuel from them.

I would have to extend the vegie garden and orchard and work out systematically what food could be foraged from the 16 hectares. And, of course, we’d have treats such as truffles, only we’ve eaten the pig, bugger, and the dog is too stupid to find them. No matter, I’d have all the time in the world to sniff them out myself.

At work recently, we’ve been talking around the coffee machine about Mennonites, Huguenots and Anabaptists. Just quietly, I thought we were discussing aliens from the latest Star Trek movie, Into Darkness, which is totally awesome, but no, my confused look led my colleague and part-time food stylist, David Reist, to clarify that these were dispossessed protestants from around Switzerland who fled their homelands in the 16th century due to being persecuted for their religious beliefs. Something to do with pacifism, adult baptism and just not toeing the party line. Interestingly, the Catholics weren’t the culprits here, they were up to their necks in other business; it was all about the Protestant Reformation. Or something like that. The main point is this band of Anabaptists hit the road and is now spread over the world.

We all know the Amish – the wooden barns, horses and braces – well, the Mennonites are sort of the same, a bit more liberal, but they live in large communities and they look after the land where they live. Phew, I finally got there.

Reist is from this heritage and has fond memories of fantastic food markets where all the produce is traded, so he brought in a book for me, Edna Staebler’s Food That Really Schmecks (1968). At which point I ask him again: ”Are you sure you’re not an alien species here to probe us?”

I’m pretty sure you won’t find this book locally, but it’s an instructive almanac on how you’d go about living off the land. The recipes are all pretty unadorned with exotics, as you’d expect. They use a lot of protein (yay), as well as other food from the farm – milk, cream, butter, lard (yep, they love lard), and loads of vegetables.

There is also lots of preserving, and little wastage. I love the bit where they discuss their favourite chicken offal: ”My little sister loves the heart.” So this is like gold for me in my mood of self-sufficiency.

The humble chicken (note to self again, buy a rooster!) gets a lot of attention. One of Staebler’s favourite dishes is butter-fried chicken in milk gravy, and it’s a dish I can’t resist, being from Huguenot roots, if tenuously – nine generations back. The only thing better, she says, is the same dish with dumplings. So that’s what I’m cooking.

Staebler recounts her mother cutting up ”a nice little yellow hen” into drumsticks, thighs, wings, back, breast, neck and giblets, then covering them with boiling salted water and cooking them slowly until tender. Then her mother ”lifted out the pieces, drained them, and dropped them into melted butter in her big iron fry pan, turning them carefully until all the skin is crisply, delicately browned”.

Sounds perfect, but I would suggest giving the whole chicken a three or four-hour brining in a 10 per cent salt solution before you cook it, and skip the salt in the water.

From here, make the milk gravy. To summarise, add a few aromatics such as onion, leek, celery and carrot, herbs and pepper to the stock you’re left with from cooking the chicken, then reduce it to two or three cups full. If you find yellow fat on the surface (not likely these days), Staebler advises skimming it off and setting it aside to make cookies.

Add a cup of milk to the reduced stock with four or more tablespoons of what we’d call a roux (cook four tablespoons of flour in four tablespoons of butter until mealy looking). Cook the stock until it thickens. (Alternatively, make the roux, and add as much stock and milk as you think right.) Add a couple of handfuls of parsley, finely chopped, and pour over the chicken pieces and some boiled potatoes.

Edna Staebler suggests adding dumplings to the dish, made like this:

2 cups flour

1 tsp salt

4 tsp baking powder

½ tsp pepper

3 tbsp melted butter

1 egg, well beaten


Sift the dry ingredients. Work in the melted butter, egg and enough milk to form a moist, stiff batter. While you are frying the chicken and before you add the thickeners, drop spoonfuls of the dumpling mix into the boiling broth. When they are cooked (they will probably float), scoop them out.

Add the dumplings to the gravy, and ”purr as they and the fried chicken disappear into your happy family”.

What a lovely, simple recipe. Serve with maple-glazed carrots and welshkahn oyster puffa (corn fritters) and you have a pretty good attempt at a Mennonite meal.

Bryan Martin is winemaker at Ravensworth and Clonakilla, bryanmartin苏州美甲学校.au

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